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When attorneys in the Elian Gonzalez case appear today before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, they may very well encounter a judge who will waste no time declaring what he thinks. J.L. Edmondson, 52, will be the chief of the three-judge panel that will hear the closely watched question of whether a child — in this case the celebrated 6-year-old Cuban boy — may seek political asylum without a parent’s consent. The two other judges on the panel are Charles Wilson, 45, a former federal magistrate and U.S. attorney from Tampa and the court’s newest judge, and Joel Dubina, 52, of Montgomery, Ala. Regarded by lawyers as the most conservative on the 11th Circuit bench, Edmondson didn’t have any experience as a judge when President Ronald Reagan appointed him in 1986. Two years earlier, Edmondson had managed Reagan’s re-election campaign in Gwinnett County, a suburb of Atlanta. At the time, he was legal counsel for a local school board and an instructor in trial practice at the University of Georgia’s law school. Despite the conservative label, Edmondson is not beyond taking unusual steps. He is also known for quickly telegraphing how he feels. It was Edmondson who acted on his own last month when he issued the 11th Circuit’s initial ruling that kept the government from shipping Elian back to Cuba before the court held a hearing. Chagrined federal prosecutors in Miami also will recall that it was Edmondson who led the charge to overturn the fraud convictions of four former executives of the now defunct General Development Corp. In the federal district court, the men had been convicted of playing a role in luring thousands of consumers into buying Florida homes at inflated prices. But in 1995, during oral arguments before the appellate court, Edmondson stunned the government by questioning whether a crime had been committed. When it came time for then-assistant U.S. attorney Norman Moscowitz to argue his case, Edmondson peered down from the bench and declared: “You have to do a very good job if you are going to win today.” One year later, the court reversed the executives’ convictions and set them free. Writing for the majority, Edmondson scolded the government for stretching the law; he even suggested prosecutors had made it up as they went along. Quoting from “A Man for All Seasons,” he wrote, “The law is a causeway upon which, so long as he keeps to it, a citizen may walk safely.” The government cried foul, complaining the appeals judges had created a path for white-collar criminals to run amok. “Judge Edmondson is a man after my own heart,” Miami criminal defense lawyer Joel Hirschhorn, says fondly. One of the defendants — GDC president Robert Ehrling — was Hirschhorn’s client. “He is probably one of the best-prepared appellate judges,” Hirschhorn said. “He forces you to focus directly on the legal issues.” Indeed, in the Elian case, the court’s 16-page opinion that kept the boy in the United States focused directly on a congressional statute that set no age limit for aliens to apply for asylum. The opinion indicated that immigration law allows “any alien,” even a youngster, to submit an application. But the court warns both sides not to read too much into its April ruling. “No one should feel confident in predicting the eventual result in this case,” the court order said.

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